The tune of the ‘tungna’

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Damber Singh Gurung, the 'Tunga' player

By Agnesha Tamang

A short distance from the house of artistic handlooms made by sheep’s wool in Begha, West Sikkim, we enter a house defined by a cute little gate, making way for the big structured semi-cottage blue building that looks odd among the tiny typical thatched houses scattered all around the village. The day is cold but is made up for by the warm welcome. The mother of the house brings us hot mugs of tea accompanied by popcorn made by the product that is probably harvested in their own field. As we exchange friendly glances and smiles, the ‘main’ man arrives.

Damber Singh Gurung, a middle-aged man, wearing a lukuni (coat made out from the sheep’s wool) and a traditional sheep’s wool topi (cap) joins us with a ‘tungna’ (lute) in his hand. A confused look in his eyes and an anxious smile on his lips.


As the duskiness of the evening glooms early and the winter chill brushes our faces, mudah (handmade cane seater) and chairs are laid on the patio decorated with seasonal flowers. Damber Singh adjusts his mudah and plucks the strings of his tungna a couple of times.

Tungna is a stringed traditional instrument played by people of the Himalayan belt. Gurung, Tamang, Bhutia, Sherpa, Newar, Tibetan, etc. are some among the many communities who play this instrument.


‘Tunga’ a traditional instrument played mostly in the Himalayan belt by different communities

54-year-old Damber Singh Gurung has been playing tungna since his twenties.
“When I was eighteen, I was eager to learn to play tungna. I was tutored by my late grandfather, Ratna Bahadur Gurung, late father, Dal Bahadur Gurung and my uncle, Bal Bahadur Gurung and other elders of the village. By the age of 20, I was able to play it well”.
Playing the instrument comes through centuries of learning.

“In the early days, tungna was merely played for entertainment and singing lullabies. Since our ancestors were shepherds, and they were pastoral nomads, they shifted their herds throughout the year between highlands to lowlands depending upon the season, setting up a temporary locale. During such times of herding the sheep they used to play this instrument for their entertainment”, informs Damber Singh, who as a kid once lived a nomadic life with his grandparents and parents.

The origination of the stringed instrument has its own folklore depending upon each community. As for the Gurung community they say, it originated when shepherds took turns to guard the herd at night.

“Usually the lot comprised of three shepherds- the mul gothala (main shepherd), jhilkey (the jester) and achuba (the youngest). In the dark wilderness, these three took turns to guard the herd whilst singing and chiselling wood. One such night an old sheep couldn’t survive. So, one of the shepherds skinned the dead sheep, dried the skin and covered one of the hollow chiselled woods with it. The gut of the sheep too was stretched and dried and attached to the hollow object as strings, thus making it into an instrument. They started playing absorbing tunes with it and when the commoners queried them about the instrument, they chronicled it as tungna”, shares Dhan Bir rephrasing the words- “dhukuna ma banako tungna” (this is a tungna which we made while we sat guarding).
Initially, the songs merely had the typical hums and classic pulse meant to keep the wild animals at bay from the shed. Later, the hums were accompanied by lyrics which retold folklores.


“Aa hai, la hai lai, lai bari lai.
Tin aakhey tara le o ho darai katyo,
Jhulkina lagyo ghama pahelo.
Yesai thauko simey bhumi diney deuta lai,
Hami mangdai chai hai bardana…”


Which translates to –

The three-eyed star has settled,
The yellow sun has now started to rise.
To the gods who gifted us this place,
We seek their blessings…”


Damber Singh sings these lines. His voice, dry as the winter chill, yet has the softness of the summer breeze.

Like any other musical instrument, the tungna also has its own tunes which are categorised under 5 tunes – the humming tune, whistling tune, blessing tune, thanking tune and the entertainment tune.
Damber Singh not only plays the tungna, but also makes them, which again, he learnt from his elders. He tells that the body is carved out of a single wood gathered from local resources. The skin used to cover the hollow body is obtained from dead old sheep. The gut used earlier has been replaced by nylon guitar strings nowadays.

In the present day, this particular instrument is played during festivities in the urban areas. While in the villages fewer section still plays often when the villagers after a hard day’s toil gather around to entertain themselves. The lyrics may not carry a specific message but retells folklores of the ancestors portraying their lives.

Damber Singh is one of the very few individuals in Sikkim who are into tungna making.

“As far as I know, apart from me in the Gurung community, there is one Bal Bahadur Gurung from Buriakhop, West Sikkim who makes this instrument. He happens to be my uncle. I haven’t heard much of others. If there are, they too must be highlighted”, he tells.

Damber Singh is concerned over the modernised musical instruments and other improved technologies sidelining the traditional ones. He cheerlessly mentions, “new technology has brought in so many facilities, even in the musical sphere. The emergence of modern gadgets and devices have made the people, especially the younger ones forget their culture and traditions. Hardly anyone is interested to learn and to those whom I have enquired say that they feel ashamed to play antique and outdated instruments”.

His concern does ring an alarm!
After the conversation, Damber Singh starts singing to the tune of the piece of wood which he holds dear. The anxious smile on his face is now relaxed. There’s a spark in his eyes, which wasn’t there before, promising to keep his ancestral art alive.

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